Composer Backstories: Bob Dylan
By Alyssa Melton
A lot of people enjoy folk music—and rock. Bob Dylan, a controversial musical figure born 1941 in Minnesota, is largely responsible for the emergence of rock as a genre in the 80s. Many young musicians don’t realize how similar Bob Dylan’s story might look to theirs. Dylan has a highly unique and influential history—musical and personal, that ought to be known by more people.
To start, Bob Dylan isn’t even his birth name. He was born “Robert Allen Zimmernan” and, rejecting the person his parents, educators, and society pressed him to be, took on a whole new name and identity—which many critique as a pose he worked hard to maintain—mimicking an older musical star of the time. At a young age, Dylan wanted to be a musician; one of his largest influences was Woody Guntherie, a key figure in the development of American folk music and the composer of “This Land Is Your Land ". Unfortunately, Guthrie was experiencing ill health, and so Dylan set off to New York to accompany him in the sliver of time remaining.
On his solo journey, he stopped in Chicago. Formerly a piano player, Dylan began instead strumming a guitar which he played at coffeeshops, parties, and dorms. His close friends doubted he would make it in the musical world; the songs he sang for the most part weren’t his own. But that would soon change. At 20 years old, when he arrived to New York City in January of 1961, he composed “Song to Woody”, a tribute to his dying idol; in the song Dylan altered the traditional folk genre by incorporating some of his own unique flavor. But, despite reaching New York and making groundwork as a musician, he still lacked a place to stay.
A wanderer without a home, Dylan entered the Cafe Wha? during an especially violent snowstorm, going onstage to play a few songs (many of which were Gutherie’s) between which he said to listeners, “I been travelin’ around the country followin’ in Woody Guthrie’s footsteps. Goin’ to he went to. All I got is my guitar and that little knapsack. That’s all I need” (1).
Bob Dylan had an unusual appearance for sure, with a harmonica held by wires and a guitar strap around his neck. His physique made him look fourteen instead of twenty.
And his appearance, tacky yet innocent and alluring, attracted some attention. He was offered a place to stay for the night, the night he captivated hearts and really began the journey of making a name for himself.
Dylan reached Gutherie in the hospital and spent much time with him there, playing songs on his guitar as the two grew closer, one of which was his own “Song to Woody” which was received with much pleasure; Guthrie particularly liked Dylan’s voice. Jack Elliot, another close friend of Gutherie’s, became something of a musical mentor to the unpolished yet talented Dylan (who still wasn’t getting hired by anybody but rather playing in coffee houses for exposure and some tips) as he developed his style and mannerisms. And for a while it remained this way: Dylan lived on only a little money, getting only a little recognition from professionals like Freddy Neil.
In this marginal 60s existence Dylan began using marijuana. Despite his innocent appearance, Dylan was a man who knew how to work people: He had what he wanted in mind—to be a renowned, money-making musician—and he did what he could to get there, even if it meant stepping on some toes. Nevertheless, by April of the same year (1961) he had found his first real gig, which many claimed “ended before it started” and enthralled much of the audience.
Dylan, amidst his constant strumming, songwriting, and performing during this time, became aware of Bill Cosby’s work and studied it like Guntherie’s. He met other folk musicians like Joan Baez in Club 47 in Cambridge where he went with some other singers of the same genre. These events were pivotal in his musical career; by September, Dylan had made the New York Times as a “Distinctive Folk-Song Stylist” by a critic from whom no other folk singer had ever received such a praising review. Before long he was wanted and recruited by studio producers, becoming the first young male folk singer to be part of a major record deal.
So, what was it that Bob Dylan sang about? Much of his lyrical music of the 60s (acoustic in instrumentation) reflected, like other folk music, optimistic views on the world, protests against racism and entrenched power and wealth, lost love (3). But as his fame grew, the incident at the Newport Folk Festival (1965) outraged his fans, who were expecting an acoustic set, not Dylan equipped with an electric guitar and backed by a full band. How did Dylan respond? Congruent to his nonconformist character from the moment he changed his name, Dylan didn’t step down as his song, “Like a Rolling Stone”, grew to record ratings despite fans’ initial enraged responses (2). As he famously remarked, “Screw that. As far as I [know], I [don’t] belong to anybody” (3). What was so significant about Dylan’s controversial electric appearance at the Newport Folk Festival? Well, for one, his dismissive attitude about his fans’ reaction permates in several modern music genres, including punk, rap, hip-hop, electronica; to Dylan it did not matter that his audience didn’t like what he was producing; it was good enough to him. Thus emerged a new artistic direction of popular music as a whole, beginning with the once-folk singer of the 60s, Bob Dylan.